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Articles of Faith: Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival

On Phuket Island in southern Thailand, three young men inspect photos in a shop window. Their baggy white pants and shirts are signs that they are Vegetarian Festival penitents, celibate and abstaining from meat and alcohol. Their bandaged faces indicate that they have inserted through their cheeks, as recently as that morning, bizarre objects like the men whose pictures they scrutinize-a lamp base, a motorcycle headlight, a rifle butt, a badminton racket, a child’s bicycle.  

From its name, one wouldn't guess at the gory self-mortification rites that take place during the Vegetarian Festival, but they are essential to the nine-day event. Island-wide, people purify body and soul through diet and visits to Chinese temples. The task of eradicating the year's misfortunes completely, however, is the responsibility of mediums, who might be your next door neighbours if you lived on Phuket. Under the direction of the gods who possess them, the mediums pierce their bodies, climb bladed ladders, and walk barefoot across burning coals, feats that are undertaken for the entire community’s benefit. The gods ensure that the mediums feel no pain. Surprisingly no one dies from his trials or at least no fatalities are reported, a medium’s life prolonged in fact as a boon from the gods for his cooperation.

Larger and odder instruments have invaded flesh in recent years and the subjects who have endured them have their pictures taped to a window for fellow participants like the three men I observed to impress or, I suspected, to emulate. The noticeably fewer female mah song-or devotees-turn less drastic weapons upon themselves than the men, if they abuse their bodies at all, perhaps because of a woman’s concern for her appearance. A writer for the Phuket Gazette has questioned whether the over 100-year-old festival has become a freak show, encouraged by the Tourist Authority of Thailand’s promotion of primarily its more gruesome aspects. Undeniably, the festival now draws large numbers of tourists, mainly Asian, but a Thai woman chided me when I asked her what part human intent plays in the self-mutilation. The mediums do not choose the ritual article, however peculiar. "It is the gods who are in control and competition,” she said, meaning masculine, demon-destroying gods, which is why the mortal men they occupy can withstand pain, and why women are usually passed over, to be visited instead by gentler deities. There was no other reason to doubt the vigour of Thai faith. When the procession of mediums wound through Phuket’s streets, amid explosions of deafening firecrackers, silent residents with heads dipped and hands together in reverent gratitude lined the sidewalks to watch them pass.

Ninety-five percent of the Thai population is Buddhist, but the gods they honour in the Vegetarian Festival are Taoist, members of an enormous pantheon that is the belief of ancient China. Phuket Island is best known today for its beaches and sun worshippers, but in centuries past, it was a major mercantile centre on Southeast Asian shipping routes for the Chinese, Portuguese, Arabs and Indians. The Chinese predominated, trading the island’s tin and rubber, and introduced to the local people their gods and religious practices, one of which was a simple fast—known as Taoist Lent-held in the autumn when the harvest in China was traditionally complete. This early version of the Vegetarian Festival took place on the nine day of the ninth lunar month because the number nine, similar in sound to the words “long time”, was considered auspicious. Nothing more exceptional, however, than Chrysanthemum wine, symbolic preparation for winter’s chill, passed between anyone’s lips. It was a date too significant not to be appropriated for the annual worship of the Nine Imperial Gods of Heaven, powerful and complicated deities in control of human destiny, who bestow triple the amount of blessings—in the forms of longevity and wealth-upon their followers during a festival that observes two nines on the day it begins and which lasts for nine days in total. 

Homage is paid to the Nine Emperors in Penang, Malaysia and Singapore but only in southern Thailand has their worship evolved to include so much drama, and of the two Thai locations of the festival, Trang and Phuket towns, the latter is by far the most exciting. Two events influenced its development in Phuket. In the early nineteenth-century, a Chinese opera company performing on the island during Taoist Lent avoided their demise in a malaria epidemic by adopting a strictly vegetarian diet, propitiating the Nine Emperors, and doing meritorious deeds, measures adopted in thanksgiving ever since. The severe penitential acts are thought to have been incorporated into the rites by Chinese who were forced to leave China and its weakened Qing Dynasty after the failed Boxer Rebellion of 1900 as graphic admonitions to following generations that the fight—endorsed by heaven-to regain their motherland must continue. The Boxers, a society of martial artists, believed themselves invincible to bullets, a conviction that can be glimpsed in the warrior-like behaviour of today’s entranced mediums-they whoop and take aggressive stances-but the scribbles they draw upon charm paper at the private altars lining the parade routes are not cryptic messages of political intrigue, but potentially lucky lottery numbers which are tested at the earliest convenience by the hopeful recipients.

Noteworthy about Phuket’s festival is that the Hindu god Siva is revered along with the Nine Emperors, legacy of the Indian culture that prevailed in Thailand from the second century BC to the ninth century AD. Within Hinduism are found the original concepts of asceticism, amulets, fasting, meditation, trance, and cosmic deities, of which Siva is one. Hindus also practice mortification during rituals such as Thaipusam, still observed every February in Singapore and Malaysia, and a spectacle I thought unrivalled until I attended the Vegetarian Festival.

In Taoist cosmology, the Nine Emperors reside in the seven stars of the Big Dipper, and on two others close by. Sons of a water spirit, they disembark on earth in either oceans or rivers from where they are invited into an urn of burning oil by ancient Taoist incantations. Thus contained, the spirits are then transported to the temple where they are sequestered until returned to the water nine days later. Each of the six participating temples in Phuket’s festival welcomes their guests in this way. In addition, every shrine has nine sedan chairs for the emperors when they accompany the mediums in their morning processions of penance through the streets. Hoisted aloft on men’s shoulders, these heavy wooden chairs heave violently as though sailing in stormy seas to show spectators that not only are the deities sitting in them, but that they are in control of their bearers. Small statues sometimes ride on the seats as deputies for the invisible gods, and when these chariots pass, the atmosphere is so charged with the sense of the extraordinary that all the Thai sink to the ground. In the festival’s finale, mediums escort the thrones to Phuket Bay shortly before midnight, skipping with bared chests and feet through so many exploding fireworks that Phuket sounds as though it is under attack. The mediums wave black flags covered in protective esoteric symbols that remain preternaturally untouched, while the banners raised by their attendants disintegrate under the fierce bombardment.

The frenzied farewell just barely surpasses the sight of these men testing the depth of their faith by mounting tall ladders on rungs of sharpened steel, sprinting across glowing coals that radiate heat like a sun, or wounding their faces with eight-feet-long steel bars, or hedge clippers. Braving injury is an important part of a medium’s performance, but his preparations to do so, the process that transfigures him from man to god, is what kept me spellbound. For bodies already cleansed through diet and prayer, as little as thirty minutes was required. Privacy was not: I stayed within feet of the mediums as they gathered inside their respective temples while a primeval pounding on large drums summoned their possessors. They yawned or made retching noises, the first signs of trance. Their heads began to shimmy sideways faster and faster, their eyes rolled and finally, they yelled to herald the god’s arrival and rushed to the altar upon which his image stood. Once borrowed, the mediums donned their gods’ clothing of aprons and loose pants, unfurled their flags and rid the air of harmful spirits with sharp cracks of long whips. They spoke in high-pitched voices and used an old Chinese dialect which helpers translated. The tissues that wiped away their sweat or blood became talismans to be offered to the eager crowd. After their trials by fire, blade or sword, the mediums returned to the altar and fell back into the arms of assistants, one of whom straightened their rigid limbs and gently pressed between their eyebrows to seal the invisible third eye through which a shaman receives his superior insight.

The mortification displays take place early mornings and evenings, but during the day the temples remain busy and interesting places. Sellers peddle toys, fireworks and special snacks. Temporary kitchens cook as many as 3000 vegetarian meals a day. There are wayang or Chinese operas, traditional entertainment for religious ceremonies. A constant stream of devotees bring long tapers of incense to a special altar where a tall bamboo pole rises, adorned with a yellow flag and nine tiny oil lamps, each representing an emperor. In the hours before the bladed-ladder or fire-walking events, scores of men sharpen the removable metal rungs or press the reddened coals into a firm surface. On the afternoon of the gods’ departure, a long queue of people forms to have the insignia of the emperors stamped across their shoulders, a divine promise to shield them against evil, but otherwise described as “luck” by the woman who encouraged me to have the permanent crimson ink branded on my shirt. 

What I enjoyed most about loitering around the temples was spying on the mediums, who, between visitations, appeared distinctly ordinary, chatting with friends and families, or playing with their children. I expected mythical flesh-and-blood heroes, celebrities by their association with the supernatural, but found instead fathers, husbands, devoted family members, who fulfilled an ages-old practical function of intermediary between worlds in a culture where spirits are part of the natural order. How and why they assumed their demanding duties was a familiar story about a mandate they couldn’t refuse. A young woman introduced me to a medium who was her uncle; another she knew as a local policeman. “They were unbelievers,” she said, “which is why the gods selected them.” I stopped checking for burned or lacerated feet, stitches holding cheeks together, or infections—not that any were evident-understanding faith to be the miracle, and not the mysteries that were carried out in its name.